(An excerpt from a lecture on Encountering Ethics, which I taught in the Fall Semester, 2019.)
A nation without law becomes chaotic, even unlivable, with citizens having their rights violated and they, in turn, violating the rights of others. One of the functions of law is to create peace, which is the tranquility of an ordered society. That is why America is a nation governed by law.
The Moral Presupposition of Civil Disobedience
However, there are some laws which a person cannot, in good conscience, obey, because they contradict what he or she believes. To follow such laws would mean that a person is not being true to himself or herself, that is, his or her deepest beliefs and values.
Obedience, then, is limited by the very fact that a human being has a conscience. Civil disobedience presupposes that one cannot obey a law, because it is unjust, not morally right. Martin Luther King, Jr., referring to Augustine of Hippo, writes, “‘an unjust law is no law at all.’”
King believes that laws permitting segregation and discrimination are wrong and, as such, not valid laws. Therefore, they are not morally binding. In other words, a person has no obligation, in conscience, to obey such laws.
The Civil Rights Movement
Such reasoning is behind the protests of the Civil Rights Movement in the late 1950s and 1960s. In Birmingham, Alabama, Martin Luther King, Jr. led a public demonstration, protesting policies of segregation and discrimination in that State. In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” King defends his doctrine of civil disobedience, saying, “I can urge men to disobey segregation ordinances because they are morally wrong.”
The laws in Alabama promoted discrimination and segregation. But King would not accept the simplistic notion that law, by virtue of the authority of those who made it, was morally right. He writes, “We can never forget that everything Hitler did in Germany was ‘legal’” and that “It was ‘illegal’ to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler’s Germany.” Hence, legally, discrimination and segregation were right but, morally, they were wrong.
The Non-Violent Approach to Civil Disobedience
Civil disobedience is most effective, gains the attention of civil authorities, when it is peaceful or non-violent. Men and women should do everything within their power to resolve a conflict peacefully. Nevertheless, as citizens of the United States, they have the right to criticize local, state and federal branches of government. As Abe Fortas, former Supreme Court Justice, says,
“From our earliest history, we have insisted that each of us is and must be free to criticize the government, however brashly; even to advocate overthrow of the government itself. We have insisted upon freedom of speech and of the press and, as the First Amendment to the Constitution puts it, upon ‘the right of the people peaceably to assemble and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.’”
Accepting the Consequences of Civil Disobedience
Since King went to jail for civil disobedience, his words are especially meaningful, because he wrote in the Birmingham jail itself, “One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty.” There is, then, a legal penalty for civil disobedience and those who break the law must be willing to accept its consequences, such as being arrested and going to jail.
What Civil Disobedience Does Not Mean
Civil disobedience does not mean immediately rushing out into the public and protesting a law, because a person or group disagrees with it. There is a political process leading up to civil disobedience and protesters should not attempt to circumvent it. Democracy in the United States presupposes that rational men women will use words (hence, freedom of speech and the press), not resort to violence, to change unjust laws. Violence as a method of civil disobedience begets counter-violence, resulting in social chaos. Therefore, there is neither philosophical nor moral support from Dr. King’s doctrine of civil disobedience and peaceful protests for violent protests and the destruction of property. In reality, such acts are distractions, undermining the legitimate reasons for the public protests themselves.
Abe Fortas, Concerning Dissent and Civil Disobedience (New American Library, New York, N.Y.: 1968), p. 24.